Throughout the entire election cycle, I’ve remained relatively quiet on the media’s complacency in the rise of two terrible candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. After reading Timothy Crouse’s The Boys on the Bus, a fascinating read that chronicles the roving pack of journalists that covered the 1972 presidential election, I saw a trend that has carried on from 1972 into today.
The idea or trend that Crouse picks up on is what is called “pack journalism.” Pack journalism is when a reliable news source such as the Associated Press produces a generic but informative news article that most major media outlets pick up and reproduce. This is how it’s been for decades and the AP has remained at the top of the journalism hierarchy. Crouse’s main indictment of pack journalism was that it didn’t allow newspapers to truly delve into the character and personality of presidential candidates. Editors would rather go with the tried and true AP story than risk losing readership over a profile piece. This would then allow faults and character flaws of a certain candidate to go unchecked and unreported. People know the candidates, they know what stupid things they’ve said, but they don’t actually know the candidates.
Pack journalism has mostly been eliminated in print and newspapers aren’t usually afraid to put their microscope to candidates. With the rise of blogs and other online publications, people are afforded the ability to read profile pieces as well as AP news pieces. The only medium that pack journalism still infects is television. The three big political networks that people watch religiously are CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. Each has unique programming schedules with different shows and hosts, but all three report on the exact same news. If Trump happens to slip-up and says something supremely stupid, something that happens daily, the three TV giants will be there to report and replay the remark until they can’t anymore. If Clinton does the same, the three networks will replay and regurgitate the remarks until they’re blue in the face. Pack journalism rules the newsroom at CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.
This past summer, I worked as the communications director for a Catherine Hanaway, a local Missouri candidate, who was running for Governor. I worked with the media daily and handled most press releases and turnout. One thing I learned from that job is that local TV media differs greatly from national TV media. There were a bevy of TV stations from certain areas that I worked with and their coverage of the race was inquisitive, investigative, and at times very harsh. And I was okay with that. I wanted that. I wanted media to truly look into each candidate and report on happenings along the campaign trail. A local Columbia, Missouri station, KOMU8, did a series of investigative pieces in which they fact checked each of the gubernatorial candidate’s ads for accuracy in their claims. This gave viewers a better idea of who was telling the truth and who wasn’t. Local media actually cared about learning about each candidate, even if their coverage wasn’t exactly friendly. That’s how it should be. National media is so concerned with ratings that they abandoned their journalistic ethics and structure.
Besides pack journalism, another phenomenon is ruining media coverage and allowing two horrible candidates to rise: sensationalism. I’ve always denounced sensationalism and saw its true effects while driving through a charred Ferguson neighborhood last August. Sensationalism is the driving force behind accruing sizable TV ratings, however, it has disastrous effects on the viewers it tries so desperately to woo. I realized how far TV networks were willing to go when I saw a screenshot of CNN coverage that made me fear for the next three months. Trump had recently posted a picture of himself eating Kentucky Fried Chicken with a fork and knife. Although the majority of the country eats KFC with their hands, this picture wasn’t even close to being newsworthy. CNN thought differently. They had a bucket of KFC on set and had instructed an anchor to reconstruct Trump’s picture to see if he was trying to send a message by eating KFC with a fork and knife. Seriously.
Anytime either of the candidates says something dumb or throws a barb at the other, the media will report on it until people are sick of hearing it. Some pieces need to be published and reported on, and certain events along the campaign trail are important to hear, however, these types of news bits are rarely heard. Because people don’t want to watch a detailed analysis of each candidate, the three networks turn to something mind-numbing and easily digestible. If sensationalism was a functioning organism, instant gratification would be the heart. Instant gratification, accelerated by the incredible speed and information capacity of new technology, has infiltrated politics. People either don’t have time or don’t want to sit down and read a piece that deconstructs and analyze’s Trump’s foreign policy plan. They want to see what “Crooked Hillary” did on the campaign trail or hear Trump say “Make America Great Again” for the millionth time.
Sensationalism’s true effects aren’t realized by most until they step back and actually look at how much they know about each candidate’s plan for the country. Do you know the facets of Trump’s economic policy? What are Clinton’s plans to combat ISIS red tide of Islamic terrorism that’s sweeping the Middle East? How will Trump improve educational standards, especially in inner cities?
These are all important questions that affect every single American. Chances are, if you get most of your election coverage from TV, you haven’t heard the answer to any of these questions. If you don’t know anything about the two people that could occupy the oval office, pack journalism and sensationalism are to blame.